DeSantis’s habit of leaning into criticism from his political opponents has heightened scrutiny of how the pandemic is unfolding in his state. But, overall, the numbers from Florida aren’t much different from other places, muddying efforts to cast DeSantis as incompetent or nefarious.
Given all of that, it’s not surprising that a report from Yahoo News alleging that the number of deaths reported in the state was undercounted was embraced by the governor’s critics. Former governor (and former Republican) Charlie Crist, who’s exploring a run for his old job, declared on Twitter that DeSantis “was likely hiding thousands of positive COVID cases,” linking to the article.
The Yahoo report points to research published in the American Journal of Public Health earlier this month that suggests that the “impact of COVID-19” — the disease caused by the coronavirus — “on mortality is significantly greater than the official COVID-19 data suggest.” That assessment derives from analysis of Florida’s excess-death count, the number of deaths recorded in the state that exceeded recent annual averages. Imagine if Florida had seen 1,000 deaths on average in the first week of January in 2017 through 2020. Then, in 2021, the number of deaths jumped to 1,250. That shift, those excess deaths, would suggest that something unusual happened.
Dropped into a political debate, that conclusion seems to support the argument that Crist makes: DeSantis is hiding the true death toll.
Considered in the broader context of the national pandemic, as it should be, it doesn’t.
There is no real question that the number of deaths from covid-19 recorded in the United States is too low. In an interview last May, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, said as much in a television interview. For a variety of reasons including the slow rollout of tests for the virus, the count of confirmed deaths is likely smaller than the number of actual deaths, as suggested by excess-death data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC regularly publishes excess-death data derived from death certificates. The data are usually a few weeks out of date, given that death certificates take a while to be produced and transmitted to the organization. But even so, one can see how excess deaths over the past year have mirrored the coronavirus pandemic.
Below are graphs showing the recorded excess death counts nationally and in several states as a function of the expected average toll in a given week. You can see the three waves nationally that occurred last spring, over the summer and in the fall and winter. Those waves hit different places at different times, with New York hit hard in the first wave but not the second and the opposite pattern occurring in Florida.
There are some remarkable spikes shown in that data, like the one in South Dakota that preceded (and contributed to) the third national wave. What doesn’t stand out is Florida’s excess death toll, particularly when compared to Georgia, its immediate neighbor to the north.
Of course, that doesn’t tell us anything about the comparison between Florida’s official covid-19 death toll and its excess deaths, just that the excess deaths themselves don’t suggest any strange pattern.
So let’s address the question directly. The CDC data include weekly estimates of excess deaths within an estimated range that we can use to show a broad estimate of the number of excess deaths in a region over time. When compared to the official death toll compiled by The Washington Post, you can see that nationally and in New York and Florida, the number of excess deaths has generally run ahead of the number of confirmed deaths. In recent weeks, the number of confirmed deaths has closed with or caught up to the number of excess deaths — because those excess deaths are compiled on the aforementioned delay.
The gap between confirmed covid-19 deaths and excess deaths is not entirely or necessarily a measure of undetected covid deaths. It could also be other deaths that occurred because of the pandemic, like someone avoiding the emergency room out of concern of catching the virus who then dies of a heart attack. What’s noticeable about that lower graph, though, is that Florida’s confirmed death toll runs a lot closer to the excess toll than does New York’s, perhaps in part because New York’s first surge overlapped with a period when testing wasn’t expansive.
All of this aside, you don’t need to rely upon our analysis of the CDC data to lose confidence in the thesis of the Yahoo report. You can, instead, rely upon the assessment of Moosa Tatar, the lead researcher on the study Yahoo cites.
“The impact of COVID-19 on mortality is significantly greater than the official COVID-19 data suggest,” he told National Review in an interview. “But we need further research to determine specific reasons for this. These deaths may have been directly or indirectly associated with COVID-19.”
Or you can listen to Lauren Rossen, who assesses excess-death data for the CDC.
“Florida doesn’t stand out to me,” she said — to Yahoo News.
The description of the state's data expert has been clarified.